The last merger

The remaking of the airline industry has taken 35 years and many mistakes, but we're nearly there.

The prevailing sentiment seems to be that if we can just get American out of bankruptcy and married off to US Airways, we could be free and clear. We could be done. We could stop fretting about "the airlines" as if they were a box of sick puppies under the stairs.

A merger of American and US Airways would give us three megacarriers affiliated with branded global networks: American/Oneworld, Delta/SkyTeam and United/Star.

Going down a notch in size, we have Southwest, a strong low-frills, low-cost carrier with national scope and, from its eventual integration with AirTran, firm tentacles into Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.

Another notch down from Southwest brings us to JetBlue, Alaska, Hawaiian, Republic/Frontier and Virgin America, midsize carriers that are key participants in particular geographic or niche markets.

Occupying the ultra-low-cost niche are scrappy Spirit and Allegiant, two of the most successful low-fare specialists we've ever seen -- and we've said good-bye to a lot of them over the years.

As a platform for Airline 2.0, this industry lineup is not a bad place to start. We think there's enough of them to keep each other honest.

Sure, we miss Braniff and its flamboyant paint jobs. We miss the PSA smile, "The Wings of Man," the Pan Am meatball and all the rest.

But we now seem to be on the verge of having what might be the most stable industry structure we've had since this madness began in 1978, and after three decades we're warming to the notion that the price of stability might be worth paying.

In truth, we expect that most travel people are more resigned to this merger than excited by it, but if it really is the last piece of the puzzle, by all means let's drop it in and see if it completes the picture.

Since deregulation began, the U.S. airline industry has managed to put together five consecutive years of profits only once, in the 1990s.

They need to do that again.
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